#059

Finding Nemo
Disney DVD

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Pixar’s latest feature was the 500-lb. box office gorilla this summer, outpacing the anemic competition by many millions and enhancing the studio’s bargaining position with Disney just before crucial negotiations begin to extend their partnership.

You can read a lot into this: animated features in the age of Pixar and Miyazake are the new mainstream; contrary to alarmist reports, the family film is far from dead; the end of film as we know it – with actors, sets, and egos large as deluxe trailers - is nigh.

Of course, you can look at Pixar, with its thousands of youthful, talented animators and computer technicians, as one leviathan auteurist director, a Scorsese or John Ford or Vincent Minnelli made of hundreds of employees.

No one will deny the common themes of Pixar films: the search for family, the memory of loss (in Finding Nemo, a widower and his motherless child), the inevitable threat (embodied here, as in Toy Story, by a spoiled, sadistic brat), the sly pop culture gags (in Nemo, a group of sharks in carnivore recovery, spouting therapeutic psychobabble.)

You can dismiss all of this, but one thing can’t be denied: Pixar is on the effective leading edge of not just digital animation but computer-generated film, and Nemo, more than any of their previous films, is an incredible technological benchmark. On a making-of featurette included in the two-disc package, the challenge of creating realistic underwater effects is beaten early on, so much so that director Andrew Stanton and his team have to pull back in order to preserve the “cartooniness” of the film.

One complaint: Disney has felt obligated, like the producer of so many other deluxe family film packages, to include the widescreen and full screen versions of the film on two discs. As with special edition reissues of classic films like Scarface, or the Indiana Jones series, you wonder: why would anyone want the cramped, pan-and-scan versions of films so lovingly made in the widescreen format?

click here for a longer review of this film

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The Blues: A Musical Journey
Sony DVD box set

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Anyone expecting a careful, research-heavy history of the blues in the spirit of Ken Burns’ jazz series will be perplexed by this Martin Scorsese-produced trip through the story of America’s most elemental music.

Scorsese’s inspiration was to parcel out an aspect of the music to seven directors, with virtual carte blanche to tackle the subject in any manner they wished. That Clint Eastwood’s program on piano blues should be respectful, if a bit too full of the actor/director’s onscreen participation, shouldn’t be a surprise. That Scorsese’s own contribution, on the African roots of the blues, should be even more conventional is something of a shock.

Wim Wenders’ episode, not surprisingly, is both the most ambitious and the strangest. Marc Levin’s, on Chicago blues, hip hop, and the future of the blues, is the most frustrating, and Charles Barnett’s, as much a narrative film as a documentary, manages to be the most intimate.

Richard Pearce and Robert Kenner’s "The Road to Memphis", which profiles blues star B. B. King and the countless other veterans toiling in the bars and roadhouses of the “chitlin circuit”, is both affecting and depressing, contrasting the vitality of the music seen in old films with the flagging modern reality.

Mike Figgis’ contribution, on the embrace of the blues by British musicians in the 50s and 60s, is the most informative and, ultimately, the most satisfying. It forces the viewer to contemplate the idea of Tom Jones as a blues singer, and it succeeds.

Extras vary; most discs come with commentary tracks and on-camera interviews by the directors, as well as complete takes of performances by artists like King, Lou Reed, Jeff Beck and Cassandra Wilson.

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Trembling Before G-d
New Yorker DVD

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When it was released a year ago, Simcha Dubowski’s documentary on the spiritual and emotional agonies of religious gays and lesbians in Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities started to steamroll through both gay and Jewish circles, provoking strong partisan reactions from both sides.

Like similar controversies within the Catholic church, it’s heartbreaking to watch people whose faith is so essential to them being rejected by that faith, and by their families. Within Judaism, however, the agonies are prolonged by the Talmudic tradition of debate and interpretation, and the nature of Judaism itself, which lacks a central authority like the Pope. Simply put, were the Catholic church to change it's position on homosexuality, one word from the pontiff would become law for millions of Catholics. In Judaism, you have to convince every rabbi, cantor, and yeshiva student, change the mind of every Jew in the world, to effect the same kind of change.

The two-disc release of the film on DVD includes a disc of supplemental material that follow up and expand on the controversies the film provoked, making the set a real labour of love, and not just a feature-littered value-added package.

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Legally Blonde 2:
Red, White & Blonde
MGM DVD

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It’s hard to imagine a film that a film so lavishly dressed in sparkles, sequins, and hot pink should feel so drab. Legally Blonde, which starred Reese Witherspoon as an L.A. sorority girl who finds her inner lawyer at Harvard, was an unexpectedly charming bit of fluff, propelled by a brisk script and Witherspoon’s winning performance.

The sequel, which tries to make-over the Frank Capra classic Mr. Deeds Goes To Washington, is hobbled by a dreary script that drains Witherspoon of her customary spark, and telegraphs every plot point like a Power Point presentation.

Includes cast commentary track, deleted scenes and a gag reel, the rote “making of” featurette, and a LeAnn Rimes music video.

©2003 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.